Thunderous rumble reverberated across the otherwise quiet ash plain. “What was that?” I wondered apprehensively. It was getting late and we had to get to the summit before the sun sets. As we hurried along the gravel track; we began to notice steam releasing from the ground. I stared at it blankly but that quickly turned into a startling realisation - what lies right beneath us is a cavern of boiling magma.
Some years ago, while surfing the internet, I chanced upon a photograph that captivated me. It was taken by Olivier Grunewald, an avid volcano and landscape photographer. This particular photo published on National Geographic featured contrasting lava flow from Mount Ol Doinyo Lengai Volcano, set against the dwindling twilight.
Now, I surreally find myself standing at the foot of Vanuatu's Mount Yasur - the world's longest-erupting and most accessible volcano, situated on the pacific ring of fire. At the foot of Mount Yasur stands a signboard that reads, “Think Safety”. I was bemused yet amused by the irony. Nonetheless, Thomas, our local guide proceeds on with his "safety briefing".
"The lava flies out at 200 metres per second, so sometimes you got to," he finished the sentence by shifting his body in agility to dodge the imaginary lava. "During the big eruption, lavas fly everywhere…" he continued on. It is, therefore, crucial to be constantly alert for it takes only seconds to determine your karma - either escaping Yasur's wrath or succumbing to its inferno.
As we gazed at Mt. Yasur, dark clouds loomed menacingly over us accompanied by thunderous rumble resembling war cry from hordes of soldiers. I knew these weren't ordinary clouds, but were volcanic ash plume billowing from the Yasur's core. The rumble continued with every step we advanced as if guffawing at our ignorance to enter the ominous dragon furnace.
The barren ash plain is heavily covered with hardened lava bombs and volcanic ash. For a moment, it seems like walking on the moon, but Earth's gravity pulled me back to reality. I gulped when I saw a solidified rock as large as a car. This serves as a constant reminder to how violent Yasur can be – shooting huge volcanic bomb far out of the crater rim. Feeling totally exposed on this vast ash plain, my grip tightened as I hunched over the trekking pole as a feeble naive attempt to increase my evasiveness.
"Am I supposed to even be here?" Just as I was contemplating about my decision to climb Yasur, I heard something unexpected on this barren ash plain - raging waves crashing onto cliffs. This is really getting bizarre! I am pretty sure I heard it right, but how could that be? I really can't wait to find out what's going on at Yasur's core.
Standing at 361 metres, Mount Yasur is deceivingly insignificant compared to renowned volcanoes like Italy's Vesuvius and Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull. However, you will be blown away by what it has to offer. We hurried along and finally made it to the top despite panting like dogs. To our delight, we are the first few to reached Yasur's peak that afternoon. This means we could set up our photographic equipment at the sweetest spot - the edge of the crater rim.
Peering into the crater is a stunning performance put up by Mother Nature, it is a magical fusion of musical fountain and fireworks display. Each eruption is not a random splatter of lava overflow; rather, it is a unique performance companied with rumbling choruses and songs of raging waves.
There, hundreds of viscous glowing crimson rocks erupt continuously, each harbours immense energy like a phoenix bursting into flames at the final moment before its rebirth. When everything seems to quieten, Yasur surprises with jets of candid sparks in eagerness to please its already impressed audience.
Just as we were soaking everything in, Yasur suddenly explodes violently through its four vents as if the beastly dragon has awakened from its slumber. Its fiery breath turns into roaring explosion that propels lavas skyward towards the crater rim level where we stand, and sets the crater ablaze. The impact sends the entire mountain shaking with hot putrid sulphuric breath overpowering the otherwise fresh and chilly summit.
This is when we are reminded not to stand too close to the edge of the crater rim for a slipped footing will send you tumbling down the rocky path into hell. Such is the enchanting beauty of Yasur, with the ability to charm and to instil fear at will.